Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 1/10/2011 (3676 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Oh, I could plough through reams of financial analysis trying to make sense of the last few weeks of stock market volatility. Instead I find myself fixating on the accompanying photos, which usually feature some guy looking like his dog just died, captioned with the phrase, "Brokers React…"
Boy, do they react. These endlessly emotive, expressive guys could make Nic Cage envious.
I have to admit that at first all the "Brokers React" pics looked the same to me. I even cynically wondered whether they just kept recycling some hapless man in a blue jacket from the 2008 meltdown. But once I got into this phenomenon — and now I’m really in to it; it takes my mind off my RRSPs — I was entranced by the endlessly subtle variations.
You can find these pictures in the business pages of the newspaper, of course, but ever since 2008, when they became the anxious images of our times, they have also been concentrated in two Tumblr blogs: Sad Guys on Trading Floors and The Brokers With Hands on their Faces blog. Here you can scroll through dozens of disorderly-sell-off looks, Euro-zone brow-furrows and Dow-plummeting expressions of dismay. You can see men — and some women — looking stricken, pole-axed, exhausted, stupefied, baffled or disbelieving.
There is, of course, the classic hands-on-either-side-of-face image, like the Home Alone kid but not as puckishly cute. But there’s also the pulling down the cheeks while rolling the eyes manoeuvre, the chewing on the thumb move, the pensive lip tug. There’s the incredulous forehead slap, the massaging the bridge of the nose with thumb and index finger, the steepled fingers below the chin.
Perhaps the archetypal recession image involves the full-on hunched-body, head-in-hands pose-of-despair. There’s also an interesting minor variation in which a guy leans way back in his ergonomic chair with his hands clasped behind his head. He’s making a pathetic attempt at being jaunty, but really it just looks as if he’s trying to get as far away as possible from the dismal data on his computer screen.
Once you really start to research, you’ll see that brokers behave pretty much the same way whether they work in Tokyo, Frankfurt, Riyadh, Mumbai, New York, Toronto or Sao Paulo. These worldwide hands-on-face images speak to the interconnectedness of the global economy, but also to the universality of body language.
Psychologists who specialize in the field suggest that many face-touching moves are attempts at self-comfort. They’re called "pacifier gestures," and they’re ways of telling yourself to calm down. The palm over the mouth can be an expression that you simply can’t take anything else in, while hands over the eyes can indicate a moment of willed blindness.
We feel an immediate connection to these fundamental human reactions. For most people, economic confidence — or lack of confidence — is ruled not by the rational analysis of hard facts but by gut feelings. The adjectives used to describe the market in turmoil — words like "panicked," "jittery," "unsettled" — sound emotional. And most of us don’t really understand those incomprehensible numbers flashing on the big screens, but we instantly recognize the look of abject horror in the face of the man or woman who’s staring at it.
In anxious times, made even more anxious by a 24-hour news cycle and the complexity of the 21st-century economy, images of traders provide a handy history of the stock market. Now if only they could tell us what to do in the future.
Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.